Muthu waited anxiously, looking into the bloodshot eyes of the tantric. He consulted this seer whenever hard times hit him.
“Only Mari Amman can save you from the clutches of poverty.” The tantric sat in rapt contemplation, running a hand along his long beard. Streaks of gray in his hair gleamed as bright moonlight filtered through an umbrella of tree leaves.
Mari Amman, a deity, popular in Tamil Nadu, was the darker incarnation of Goddess Durga, a symbol of benevolence in Indian culture. Muthu waited for the man to continue.
The tantric resumed after a while, glancing at Muthu’s eager face. “But, Mari Amman, the goddess that annihilates evil, craves blood. Younger the blood, the fiercer her power grows.” He moved closer to a bonfire burning between them.
Dark rain-clouds eclipsed the moon, and shadows bobbed over the dancing flames. An owl hooted, its hollow voice echoed in Muthu’s ears with cacophonic resonances. He gazed in its direction. All he could see was a dark silhouette of its hooked beak. Rest of the predator’s body remained hidden by darkness.
A shudder ran through Muthu’s scrawny body at the thought of an ideal candidate in his mind; the one responsible for his doom. Her birth had signaled the bad omens that caused his downfall. The tantric had predicted calamity before her birth, wanted him to abort the child. But, Muthu chose to disregard his advice, believing that it might be a male child, who would take care of his family instead of being married off into another.
Now, he realized the perils of ignorance.
Disasters came in the form of a lost job, property, and livestock; one after the other… Sacrificing her would be the answer to his distresses. Mari Amman would be pleased with her blood. She’d shower him with wealth.
“Will a pubescent girl be alright?” Another gush of chill rushed through his body as Muthu heard his own voice echo in the dark, cold night.
The fire burned with a new vigor as the tantric added more fuel into it. The hissing flames glazed his face with a fierce orange glow. He scratched his inner thigh. “Sure, the blood of a teenage girl would definitely please the goddess.”
The tantric picked at the matted hair on his chest with long-nailed fingers. “You would receive her blessings and your problems would be mitigated.”
The flames of the bonfire danced in the seer’s eyes as he added a bunch of twigs into it.
“But, wasn’t she a benevolent god who protected the weak…” Muthu asked. “Why’d she want the sacrifice of a child?” A chilly gust lashed against his naked upper torso, and he stretched his palms over the flames.
The tantric laughed, pulled his shawl tighter around his shoulders. “Such a simple soul, you’re!” His eyebrows knotted. “By the sacrifice you grant deliverance to a sinful soul. She’ll be reborn as a blessed one.”
Muthu watched the burning twigs. “Didn’t the victims of an unnatural death go to hell instead of heaven?”
“But, for those who die for the goddess, it’s a more virtuous destiny.” The tantric looked into Muthu’s eyes.
Muthu felt his gaze burn his skin.
“So it is also for the one who facilitates such a sacrifice.” The tantric picked up another handful of kindling and threw it into the fire. Sparkles erupted like a cluster of fireflies swarming into the night air. “Mari Amman showers wealth on those who please her.” The tantric bowed his head, joined his palms together, and touched his brow in salutation. “Her blessings would enrich your life.”
Muthu looked up at the dark sky devoid of stars. He crossed his arms against his chest as the wind picked up momentum. Icy tongues licked off the warmth the bonfire had left on his hands.
“Tomorrow is pournami, the full-moon day… an occasion when rituals take best effect.” The tantric paused to scratch his inner thigh again. “Bring her here after midnight. I need to perform certain rites before the sacrifice. But, keep it a secret.”
“Will everything be alright?” Muthu asked.
“Leave your worries.” The tantric stood up. “You’ll prosper; just make sure you don’t let the cat out of the bag.”
Muthu thought of his daughter’s pet cat. She never kept it in a bag. He didn’t know what the tantric meant. Nevertheless, he left without another word.
* * *
Muthu hated the black cat also. It was a bad omen, same as his daughter born with a left leg ugly like a twisted snake-gourd.
The feline’s presence unsettled his nerves. It had a weird way of sneaking between his daughter’s legs when she washed the dishes, pushing its body against the ankle of her good leg. Its tail brushed her calves in what seemed like tantalizing strokes. She’d squeeze her half-skirt’s hem between her thighs, squat on the ground, and lift it up. The cat would graze its face against her chest and begin purring.
When Muthu approached his daughter, the cat would stop purring and stare after him, eyes glowing like emeralds, tail whipping viciously, as if it is guarding her against some ominous presence.
Now, as he climbed the stone steps and entered the verandah, he heard a hissing noise. His first notion was that of a serpent, but then a deep growl followed. He noticed the feline’s dark silhouette moving towards him in a prancing, sideways motion. It seemed to have grown in size.
Cursing, Muthu ran toward his hut’s door and pushed it open. Once inside, he slammed it shut, with an echoing bang. Some considered felines as animals that brought prosperity, the pets of Durga. He hated cats; their menacing behavior.
After a dinner of boiled tapioca and dried sardines, he sat with his wife, Kali, on a mat on the floor of their only bedroom. He shared the secret with his wife because there was no way he could hide anything from her. Besides, her involvement would help eliminate suspicion of any foul play. He knew police in this village wouldn’t take notice of a missing girl unless her parents vigorously pursued the case. But he didn’t want to take chances.
“Nobody can change destinies,” Kali said. “Neither the tantric, nor his goddess… you should rather toil harder if you want to attain prosperity.”
“I work hard in the master’s estate.” Muthu glanced at his children huddled in a corner, a patched blanket barely covering them. He returned his gaze toward his wife. “But, I hardly earn enough to feed them. Before she arrived, we were well off. Her birth caused our misery.”
“Don’t blame your child for your follies.” Kali stared out into the dark night through the single window. “She’s born disfigured because of your drinking.”
Muthu gulped, unable to say anything to refute.
“You lost the job because you didn’t stand up to your duties. You lost the property because of your reckless gambling.” She swept teardrops welling in her eyes with the back of a hand. “Stop spending on arrack and your get-rich-quick plans. You will save enough to fill our stomachs.”
Muthu averted his eyes from her face. He’d been spending most of his earnings on animal sacrifices and such rituals. He’d borrowed hefty sums from moneylenders and a good chunk of his wages went to paying off the interest. But, ultimately he was going to get results. He’d receive the blessings of Mari Amman, the tantric had guaranteed.
He lit a beedi, took a deep drag. “I hate this life, where I have to suck on the bitterness of this shit.” He grimaced, taking another pull. “I want to be able to afford cigarettes and whiskey instead of beedi and arrack.”
Kali coughed, as she always did whenever he smoked. The smell, of beedi allergic to her asthmatic lungs, made her wheeze.
He looked at her pockmarked face. In her teens, she had chickenpox. Kali had told him that she was taken to the Mari Amman temple where she was laid in a stretcher made of bamboo stalks and coconut fronds. She was carried around the shrine with her relatives following.
“I don’t know whether it was something in the coconut fronds,” she said, “or the herbs or spices or prayers. I don’t know whether it’s the power of the goddess, or my luck. But, I was cured, while many others died.”
Muthu now took a final drag of the beedi and threw it out of the door. “In a couple of years she’d be sixteen,” Muthu said, nodding toward his eldest daughter. “Who will marry a girl like her with a twisted limb? We’ll have to pay a large dowry…”
Kali’s frail body rocked in another bout of cough.
“It’s the curse of your womb; five girls in a row!” Muthu ground his teeth. “Not a single boy to fetch us some dowry.”
“They didn’t just sprout in my belly,” Kali spoke in a louder voice. “They’re your seeds. And, poverty is no excuse for an evil deed.”
“Philosophy is for the masters, don’t you understand? We need to fill our stomach,” Muthu said, searching his pocket for another beedi. “If we do as the tantric says, we’ll have lots of money to buy whatever we need.”
“I know your intentions.” Kali heaved a sigh. “Let me tell you, nothing justifies it. And, your tantric can’t change what’s destined, only your karma can.”
“Whatever I do is for the family’s common good.” Muthu cast a threatening glance at his wife. “And if you try muddling up with my plans, I won’t hesitate killing you all, and then myself. Death is far better than this wretched life.”
He saw embers burn in Kali’s eyes, and remembered Mari Amman’s idol lying behind a cluster of bushes behind the tantric’s hut. Moss covered most of it, except the eyes that shone like emeralds.
* * *
A full moon shone on the leaves of banana palms, drenched in the monsoon drizzle. Muthu sat on the verandah, smoking beedi one after another. He hadn’t told his wife the rituals were to take place tonight.
He heard Kali snore, trained his ears and listened for a while to make sure, before he sneaked into their bedroom. His daughter was sleeping on the extreme side where he wouldn’t have problems making her inhale the herb, to render her unconscious. The tantric told him it’d knock her out for about an hour; enough time to smuggle her out.
The cat slept, snuggling close to her feet, purring in contentment. It was the only creature in the family that didn’t bear any manifestation of poverty. Sturdy and furry, it was a well-fed feline. Obviously, a larger share of his daughter’s measly food went to her pet.
Muthu carefully inched his hand towards the animal, grabbed at the skin on the back of its neck, and lifted it. It shuddered once and hung from his closed fist in a fetal position. He had learned the trick well. Held in that manner, cats could seldom attack.
With his other hand, he opened the gunny bag he carried, put the cat inside. He tied the bag’s mouth quickly and walked briskly out of the door. The cat struggled and started growling as he placed it beside a banana palm, tucked the bag’s mouth under a large boulder.
Muthu trod his way back, on silent steps, like a feline stalking its prey.
* * *
Muthu sat, warming his hands over the bonfire’s flames, breathing in the acrid smell of burning wood wafting into his nostrils.
“The rituals will take about an hour. I have to prepare her; sprinkle her body with holy water, make her recite certain mantras.” The tantric handed him a beedi. “Pot,” he said.
Muthu felt a rush of adrenalin in his veins as he accepted the marijuana-filled beedi, a luxury he could rarely afford.
“When the rituals are over, I’ll call out for you. Then you can come to the backyard of the hut,” the tantric said before leaving. “You’ll find us there.”
Muthu lit the beedi and took a deep, lengthy drag. It smelled and tasted different. Musky, its smoke felt sweet against his palate. After several pulls, he felt high, floating on the wings of the curling fog that shrouded the surroundings like a haze; lightness in his limbs, dryness in his mouth.
Pods of cotton burst in the night-sky in a staccato of popping sounds. White, fluffy cotton floated in the air like shreds of clouds.
On his side, the gunny bag convulsed like a woman in the throes of labor. “Deliver me a male child,” Muthu said, “one that portends a good omen.”
“The seeds are yours, the decision too; you are in control.”
Muthu looked around, thinking that he heard his wife’s voice. No, Kali would be fast asleep back at home. More pods broke. The air filled with shreds of clouds. They sailed across and through the flames.
Muthu sniffed. Clouds don’t burn. The gunny bag twisted spasmodically again. “Push,” Muthu said in an excited voice. “Deliver me a lucky son.”
The bag rocked in a series of spasms. “Push harder.” Muthu took another deep drag of the beedi.
The tip of a head appeared, struggling to squeeze through a tiny opening. “What a beautiful hair,” Muthu said, and the head emerged.
“Oh, God, why such an ugly baby, again…” Muthu asked, gazing at it. “But color doesn’t matter. No, it doesn’t. He’ll be my lucky star.”
Muthu leaned over the gunny bag as the body started to come out; hands first, and finally the legs. He knelt to pick up the baby but stopped, frozen by terror.
The cat growled, back arched like a taut bow, fur bristled, whiskers quivering. Muscles on its upper jaw curled up, baring its fangs. The felon lashed out with a paw, drawing a thin stream of blood from his forearm. He felt the searing pain as its claws tore at the back of his hand.
The cat fled into the hut, its cries echoing through the silent night.
Muthu then heard the cries, shrill and piercing. He tried to stand up. The ground had become swampy, and sucked his feet in. He sat down, the slush gave in. He stood up, felt the moonlit horizon circling.
A sob from inside his head… a sharp cry reverberated in his ears, boomed within his skull. He slumped back to the ground.
Wasn’t she supposed to recite mantras, yes, that’s what the tantric said. Why’d she be crying? Muthu watched the bonfire burn vigorously on sodden earth. Mari Amman’s magic?
He stood up again, and walked toward the hut. The mushy ground pulled at his legs as he waded through. The mud gurgled. He heard a yell. This time he knew for sure it was not from inside his head.
Somebody had shouted something; he heard the sounds, not the words, a sudden chill sliced through his body. In the next moment, the ground became hardened, giving him a strong foothold. Muthu ran into the tantric’s hut.
* * *
A shrill cry made the cat pause. Paws firm, claws extended, its eyes searched the area. Its neck stretched, orienting itself to the darkness. It recognized the familiar scent, walked toward the direction from where it came.
The girl lay on a mat, flailing her limbs. Moving stealthily, the cat noticed the figure on top of her, pinning her down. Her snake-gourd leg twisted as the man clawed at her chest. Back arched, its ears flattened against its silky mane, the cat watched.
The black fur along its spine bristled as the feline’s tail stiffened in a downward curve and its tip wagged steadily. Focused on its target that lay exposed and bouncing now, it released its fury in a growl.
Just as the tantric raised his hip, the cat pounced between his raised thighs, snapping its jaws around his balls. Shrieking, the man stood up. The feline clung on to its catch ferociously, forepaws hung, hind legs drawn in a fetal position.
Its hackles fell back in harmony. The cat didn’t loosen its clutch on the tantric’s testicles. He ran in circles, uttering unintelligible syllables.
* * *
Muthu saw his daughter lying on a worn mat, on a white cloth, with a clutter of rubies in her lap shining in the bright moonlight. He ran toward her, grabbed fistfuls from between her legs. The swiftness of Mari Amman’s payback amazed him. But, as his eyes locked on the gems, he suddenly felt the sticky wetness in his hands.
A guttural cry, like that of an animal from a slaughterhouse, came from behind the hut. Muthu ran out.
Mari Amman stood, a butcher’s knife raised in her hand. The tantric’s body, lying tangled in the bushes, twitched in a final spasm. The blood from his truncated neck kept spraying onto the black idol of Mari Amman, shrouded with moss.
Mari Amman laughs, sweat trickling down her pockmarked face.
“Rubies, can you see…” Muthu opened his palms.
Mari Amman glared for a moment into his hand, smeared in scarlet. She nodded. “Rubies become precious…” She wheezed.
Muthu stared into her eyes.
“Only when they spill from your neck…” She raised her knife, the tantric’s blood still dripping from it.
Muthu squeezed his eyes shut against the fierce glow in her eyes. The feline watched, hair flat against its back, its upraised tail twitching in anticipation, its rosy tongue eager for the taste, as Muthu’s rubies hit Mari Amman’s idol in a scarlet spray.
Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. His fiction usually tends to be dark and fantastical with some magic realism elements, often portraying racist, fascist, and discriminatory tendencies that still prevail in his social setting in a deceptively subtler form. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His fiction is forthcoming shortly in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Lalitamba Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020.